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NAO: Delays cost Prison Project £41 million

A plan to create a single UK database of prisoner records has spiralled to more than £500 million

The UK National Audit Office has criticised the management of an ongoing project to consolidate prison service databases, claiming delays and bad decision-making have seen costs spiral.

According to a report released this week by the NAO, The National Offender Management Information System, a project started back in 2004 to create a single shared database of offenders across all the UK’s prisons and probation services has been mismanaged by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and was failing to deliver on its original goals.

“A National Audit Office investigation found the project had been hampered by poor management leading to a three-year delay, a doubling in project costs and reductions in scope and benefits,” said the NAO in a statement.

The original scope of the project was to develop a single shared database. Significant progress towards that goal has been made by the NOMS with the number of databases being consolidated from 220 to just three. But the NAO argues that given the substantial costs on the project so far, the developments are too little, too late.

“The initiative to introduce a single offender management database has been expensive and ultimately unsuccessful. These problems could have been avoided if the National Offender Management Service had established realistic budget, timescales and governance for the project at the start and followed basic project management principles in its implementation,” said Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office. “In delivering the new reduced programme, NOMS need to focus on better financial controls and more effective management oversight.”

The project, initiated in 2004, was due to be completed in January 2008 at an expected cost of £234 million. However by July 2007, the project had already costs £155 million and was two years behind schedule. At this time the estimated lifetime cost of the project had risen to £690 million. In January 2008, the NOMS reworked the project strategy and brought the estimated life-time cost down to £513 million – although this meant cutting back on some aspects of the project according to the NAO report.

The exact cost of the project mismanagement is hard to quantify according to the NAO but delays have certainly cost tens of millions, the organisation claims.

“The full financial impact of the delays is uncertain, but it is likely to be at least £41 million; £15 million of which has been spent on aspects of the project which have now been cut from the design,” the report stated. “£226 million has been spent on the project so far and roll-out of the system to prisons is expected to commence in April 2009.”

The NAO’s criticism was mostly pointed at NOMS although the report did make reference to a break-down in relations with IT contractor EDS. “NOMS’ relationship with its suppliers, particularly EDS, deteriorated during 2005 and 2006, and it did not make best use of their expertise,” the report claims.

Relations between EDS and the Prison Service may have also been soured by the loss of the details of around 5000 prison officers and admin staff on a portable hard drive by an EDS contractor in September 2008.